Review: The Neon Demon

The new film from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn begs to be looked at, which is appropriate for a thriller centered on the world of fashion. As one would expect of a Danish filmmaker who cares less about character development than aesthetics, which here alternate from minimalism to excess with a quick flash of colour, his latest is garnering jeers and cheers at equal measure from cultural critics. At its Cannes world premiere, an audience member yelled the F word at the director’s wife at the moment her name appeared before the credits. (The film is dedicated to her.) But division is expected with a film that so unnervingly charts its own sadistic path, with a story that can be best summed up as a familiar showbiz tale. Here, the style doesn’t trounce the substance: the style is the substance.

The Neon Demon (Rating: A-) focuses on 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning), an orphaned runaway from Georgia who has her sights on becoming Hollywood’s next top model. Her pale skin and gentle voice bring to mind old stories of ingénues searching for stardom, but Fanning’s performance constantly hints at something darker. Jesse is quiet and petite, looking not too dissimilar from the virginal princess Fanning embodied for Disney’s Maleficent two summers ago, but there is poise in her stance and an assuredness in her voice. (Other critics have complained about Jesse’s sharp shift from innocence to experience, although a second viewing of Refn’s film highlighted the character’s subtle command from the very first scene.)

In that opening scene, Jesse is dressed as a scream queen, reclining on a couch; her arms, neck and torso are painted red, transforming her into a woman whose throat had been slit. While washing the (fake) blood from her arms, she encounters Ruby (Jean Malone), a makeup artist who introduces the new arrival to town and vows to protect her from ulterior motives of the men who control the business. Jesse’s natural purity also horrifies her competition, models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who make the most of their pithy one-liners. They still boast about their looks, even as they turn an envious eye toward Jesse, afraid of the jobs the new girl will snatch from them.

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Jesse’s ascent quickens once she signs with a top agency. In this pointed sequence, Christina Hendricks – who played Fanning’s mother in the overlooked Ginger and Rosa – sizzles as the agent, nonchalantly explaining that Jesse will have to say she is 19 to get gigs. (“18 is too on-the-nose,” she quips.) The young woman also moves up after drawing the attention of photographer Jack (a steely Desmond Harrington) and a debonair fashion designer (the scene-stealing Alessandro Nivola). But Jesse’s quick rise only makes her a bigger target for the industry professionals who see the teenager as fresh meat.

Los Angeles, as expressed through Refn’s lens, is unmistakably abstract. Most of The Neon Demon takes place in vast, empty spaces, from the cavernous, colourless warehouses used for fashion shoots to the vacant lot of the Pasadena motel where Jesse dodges the sniffs of the rascally owner (played to peak perversion by Keanu Reeves). The lack of bodies and movement throughout the cityscape further emphasizes Jesse’s increasing power over her domain. A scene with boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman, from Gaspar Noé’s Love) plants Jesse in focus against a blurry city backdrop at night, suggesting her reign over the town. In that moment, a full moon glimmers from off to the side, nudging the story toward its horror influences.

Those nods to the genre are pronounced throughout. The predatory nature of the fashion industry is a motif that winds its way into the dialogue, written by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. (In one early scene with the models, where they chat about lipstick colours, Ruby asks whether or not Jesse is “food or sex.”) A sharp change from more vampire-inspired stories is the inordinate number of times the characters are seen looking into mirrors. The Neon Demon also wavers between the male and female gaze, although this balance exists because monstrousness lurks within characters from both genders.

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But Refn’s thriller isn’t much of a scream, due to deliberate pacing. The filmmaker unpredictably steers us into dream sequences and prolonged moments of soul-searching as characters stare in the aforementioned mirrors. While there is little plot, there is much character information being unpeeled in these extended sequences, accentuated by terrific performances. Fanning is perfectly cast, able to provide both the strength and vulnerability Jesse relies upon to navigate the industry. In one hypnotic sequence, done from a realm of fantasy, a trip down a runway brings Jesse face-to-face with a sinister-looking alter ego, bathed in bright red; here, the two halves of the women, sharply deviating at first, start to blend together. (In that scene especially, the actor’s dark stare evokes a young Jodie Foster.) Jena Malone is also very good in a small part. A scene of graphic sexuality involving her character, which will make some audience members squirm, begins as shocking and morbid, although Malone offers Ruby some tragic grace notes that gives the act more purpose.

The performances ground what is, for the most part, an audiovisual masterpiece. Cliff Martinez’s icy ambient score, creeping to different volumes and twinkling in an increasingly disorienting way, complements the unsettling depiction of show business. One could describe the sharp high notes of the music similarly to how one character labels Jesse: as “a diamond in a sea of glass.” As photographed by Natasha Braier (The Rover), every scene looks perfect – even too perfect, apt for exposing the artificiality of the pictures for which the characters pose. With its saturated excess and intricate musical score, this is a film that deserves a big screen.

The Neon Demon is hypnotic and, despite its lack of plot, overwhelmingly opulent. Those that lament the film’s close adherence to two subgenres – the vampire film, the backstage drama – do not give the screenwriters enough credit for mixing the two together. Some of the symbolism here is obvious, but there is also something exhilarating in the way Refn ties together numerous genre-centric visual cues. (Some of the dialogue, meanwhile is consciously trashy and on-the-nose: subtlety is not Refn’s strength, nor should it be.) While the film skewers its subject with delicious abandon, there is something enchanting about the glossy, glittered-up visual sense. Just try taking your eyes off of it.

Column: What We Talk About When We Talk About Blockbusters

The Harry Potter film series, with all its ups and downs, its hormonal mood swings from film to film and director to director, its prestigious British ensemble doing their best to distract from harried pacing, had several poignant and thrilling moments. But its most resonant scene was, in this writer’s opinion, one that didn’t even appear in J.K. Rowling’s books.

It happens about one third of the way into the seventh film, the first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and longtime friend Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are alone in a tent, bored and sitting on opposite sides of the space. They aren’t acknowledging each other after a hard day, when friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) left their company. During the day, they are on a quest to save the Wizarding World. At night, they feel more than alone. The tent fills with a thick silence; the only noise comes from a Nick Cave song playing on Hermione’s radio.

Harry approaches Hermione and offers his hand. She hesitates before grabbing it. As she stands up to face him, the music leaves its diegetic space and expands onto the soundtrack. Harry leads his friend to the middle of the tent with both hands. The viewer’s first response, assuming you have seen onscreen seductions before, is that this is a prelude to sex. This is one of the only instances where Harry and Hermione have been alone together in the series, and the sustained quiet from both characters provides a heated tension. Instead of embracing Hermione, though, Harry begins a silly, childish dance. In one second, the series had flirted with an erotic, adult sensibility. The next, it returns to the innocence that Chris Columbus captured in the first two Harry Potter films, made when the actors weren’t even teenagers.

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It’s a sweet, goofy, tender moment of companionship between two characters that, in sum, reminds us of the testament of friendship so inherent to Rowling’s books. There’s also something unnerving about a film that has so many tasks to fulfill within the space of a single feature, mostly involving moving the plot along and getting the characters to requisite beats, deciding to settle in for something nearly silent. Without any words and no computer dazzle required, the scene offers the audience some solace.

The small scene registers within the grandeur of the stories. It evokes the span of the adventures, which began when Harry and Hermione were stoic, inquisitive 11-year-olds, and reminds audiences why we have loved these characters. The moment reminds us how close they are to adulthood before returning them to a place that is familiar to us.

As a 25-year-old, I don’t fit squarely within a “quadrant.” I’m right in the middle of two of them. The terminology for a film that hits a wide audience spectrum is “four-quadrant”: male, female, older than 25 and younger than 25. A “tentpole,” which refers to a massive blockbuster hit that the other studios have little choice but to schedule around, is supposed to engage all quadrants relatively equally. Any studio executive would espouse that the dream breakdown for a film’s opening weekend would be split male/female, and over/under 25. But, what about actual 25-year-olds? I’m the mean average age of the ordinary moviegoer, as studios have outlined.

While my love and anticipation for popcorn cinema has dwindled, I am not entirely over blockbusters. I still enjoy seeing a big-budget film with a bag of popcorn and a boisterous audience. I will go see Ghostbusters (July 15) on its opening weekend, and will probably do the same with The BFG (July 1), Sausage Party (August 12) and, ok, maybe even the inescapably-hyped Suicide Squad (August 5). I will also, dutifully, head out to the theatres and engage with characters existing within franchises that have entertained me for years.

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I am, however, worried about the expectations of film fans in the generation after me, whose conception of popcorn cinema will be starkly different than mine. Today’s blockbusters aren’t as effective as they are efficient: they can work as epilogues to the previous adventures, origin stories for new characters, and teasers for the journeys that await. Almost none of the big moneymakers at the multiplexes exist as self-contained narratives. As culture columnist Mark Harris has explained, “moviegoers are effectively distracted from how infrequently their expectations are actually satisfied. Movies are no longer about the thing; they’re about the next thing.” It is hard to watch Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and ignore the efforts the filmmakers make in building anticipation for future DC Comics adaptations. (I also imagine it is hard to watch Batman V. Superman generally, as well.)

The Harry Potter books were a formative anthology for me, as a fledgling and soon-to-be voracious reader and, also, someone whose age closely mirrored those of the young characters as they came of age. I’m sure there are many that would consider the film adaptations to be as significant an experience. Amidst those moviegoers is, in all likelihood, a collection of studio executives – the ones who used the scale of the series and the immersion into loyal fan cultures as a paradigm to model long-gestating franchise films.

A mere 15 years ago, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone, for my American readership) reached the big screen and handily dismantled the opening day and opening weekend records. (There may be some significance in the timing: it was a good-versus-evil fantasy adventure in the shadow of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.) The brand eventually marked some soon-to-be familiar trends: expansive cinematic universes that go beyond the threshold of a trilogy; extending the final installment to earn around double the coin for a single story; frequency of releases (Warner Bros. churned out 8 Potter films in under 10 years). Despite a few dips in admissions from their predecessors, the Harry Potter films maintained a strong consistency in their popularity from 2001 to 2011.

But despite the extra-textual trends the film set, when it came to the book-to-screen transition, not all of the magic was there. With such dense and beloved material meant to find a way onscreen, the adaptations were often either stilted, faithfully re-creating less urgent or important sections of the books, or rushed, keeping the budding spirit of the series intact despite some haphazard plotting developments that likely alienated those unfamiliar with Rowling’s books.

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It may seem odd for a blog devoted to contemporary cinema culture to spend so much room expanding on studio financial incentives. But, to speak of cinema culture today is, truly, to speak of potential blockbusters: films often “too big to fail” and too broad to falter in catering to the whims of an easygoing audience of those under 25. By the end of this month, nearly half of the North American box office intake for the year will have comprised from the ticket sales of just seven films. (Five of those seven, stunningly, are Disney releases.) Back in 2001, when Harry Potter was the highest-grossing film of the year, only six of the 25 biggest successes, box office-wise, were sequels. Right now, in 2016, 16 of the top 25 films of the year so far are follow-ups.

Today’s blockbusters aren’t all a sorry bunch, but they are not as much feats of inspiration and visual imagination as they are works of efficiency and managing expectations. Big films today put less of an emphasis on the hero’s journey than the process of fitting the journeys of many heroes on a screen at once. The result is an omelet of narrative chaos: you’re expected to know as much about the stories that came beforehand and then are forced to become aligned with characters whose epilogues will be stand-alone features.

Yet, there is this incessant obligation among millions of moviegoers, myself included, to keep tabs on continually sprouting franchises. I was overjoyed and moved when watching Finding Nemo in 2003, so there is the duty to return to the same seas with Finding Dory, even as the Pixar formula becomes even more pronounced. (The less said about the abysmal The Good Dinosaur, the better.) I was a giddy nine-year-old when I saw the first X-Men film, directed by Bryan Singer, despite my minimal knowledge of the Marvel comic book universe. There is still enough investment in these characters to make me buy a ticket for the eighth film in the franchise. (A franchise that, I would argue, doesn’t contain a single truly awesome installment.)

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Personally, the need to remain invested in the efforts of franchises has less to do with my nostalgic interest in stories and characters, and more due to the creative presences that participate in these ventures. It’s hard to say no to an X-Men sequel starring one of my favourite actors, Oscar Isaac, as the villain. It’s hard to say no to a Captain America sequel from the same team that worked on The Winter Soldier, which could be the only great film to ever come from Marvel Studios. It’s hard to refuse a ticket to The Jungle Book, when the voice cast includes the scintillating talents of Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o and Christopher Walken.

And, it’s not that all big-budget fiestas are soulless and empty. There are moments of grace and intimacy within this year’s blockbusters too. One of the best scenes of any film in 2016 involves Michael Fassbender’s Magneto as he grapples with a serious familial loss before deciding to unleash his mutant powers on a group of police officers. The sequence has a raw emotional texturing, plenty of atmosphere and some dark ideas about the use and abuse of power. It works thrillingly, although less effectively when surrounded by a flurry of other stories fighting for space within a 144-minute running time. The best supporting fixture in an ensemble vehicle is still in desperate need of a tale all his own.

Another favourite moment: the sharp cut from CGI chaos to Hope Davis sitting at a piano at the start of Captain America: Civil War, which is later revealed to be part of a fateful family memory for conflicted tech genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Throughout their adventure, directors Joe and Anthony Russo sharply shift between scenes of razzle-dazzle and emotional quiet. One would call it a creative choice, but with so much story ground for the film to cover, perhaps these disruptions are just the work of a hasty team of editors.

We should expect the average blockbuster to actually bust blocks, promising to dazzle us with movie magic and illusions of grandeur. But visceral excitement fades quickly, while an emotional capacity resonates. There is little to make us expect that studio temperaments toward elongating franchises will change over the next 10 years. But, would it be too much to ask for a few more silly, solemn dances when the storms of computer-generated extravaganza have dissipated?

Review: High-Rise

British cult director Ben Wheatley is, to put it mildly, an acquired taste. You need a thick concentration and a good ear for thicker English accents to follow his early low-budget crime comedies, such as Down Terrace and Sightseers, which swerve from casual slang around the kitchen table to crass ultraviolence in minutes. At their best, Wheatley’s films are fascinatingly bipolar, the jokes so bleak and bitter it can take one a while to realize he is directing comedies. At their worse, his films are indecipherable and dull. (I find Kill List, one of his most critically revered thrillers, to whimper along interminably until a couple of bloody late-picture bangs.)

To understand and appreciate the filmmaker, though, one needs to realize that Wheatley’s hoarse anti-heroes work under a strange logic. Character motivations are often obscure, which can make the moment they set off on a killing spree (for instance) seem random, when in fact, it is the end goal all along. Wheatley’s new film, High-Rise (Rating: B+) is his most accomplished feature yet. It is also the filmmaker’s most commercially friendly, although that has more to do with the cast (which includes Tom Hiddleston), the scope (adapted from the ambitions of a J.G. Ballard novel), and the budget, a climb from his previous ventures. It also, unsurprisingly, operates on an internal logic that goes mostly unexplained, taken from Ballard’s text and applied to Wheatley’s macabre worldview.

The film takes place during the first three months of tenancy for Laing (Hiddleston) at a 40-storey high-rise building. He is a physiologist who decides to recover from a divorce by going to many parties in his building and summoning women to bed, instead of unpacking the hills of boxes that fill his apartment. Laing lives on the 25th floor, which means he quickly becomes a part of the social circle among the residents surrounding him, such as the neighbour above, aimless Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and her curious son, Toby (Louis Suc).

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Laing also befriends Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the genteel architect of the building whose blissful penthouse suite, with enough room for servants to tend to a garden and Royal’s much younger wife to go horseback riding, may as well be heaven on earth. Of the lower floors, Laing finds a friend in the very pregnant Helen (Elisabeth Moss), the only soul in the building that looks just as miserable as him. Helen’s macho husband Wilder (Luke Evans) films documentaries and sees in the building a vital subject for his latest project.

Nevertheless, the characters remain less essential to High-Rise than the space, a looming beacon of modernist architecture that Wheatley often captures at oblique angles that, rightly, exaggerate its menace. The setting is mid-1970s, when Ballard originally conceived the source material. While the retro sets, character neuroses and musical cues (including one unexpectedly gloomy ABBA cover) capture the era, the aura of the comedy-thriller is distinctly postmodern. For a film that takes great joy in displaying splashy decade-centric signs, High-Rise doesn’t feel like a period piece.

In the titular location, dogs are seen as status symbols, while children are abhorred, as they get in the way of nasty, adults-only parties. The class dynamics essential to Ballard’s wicked satire are still omnipresent, expressed in ways both observant and obvious. The rich lounge casually in tuxedos in one scene, then partake in an orgy shortly after. Inhabitants on the lower floors become energized when they throw cake and other eats off their balconies, letting the mess accumulate on the luxury cars parked underneath.

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It isn’t long before order breaks down in the towering suburbs: people get vicious and violent in dimly lit supermarkets as they grab for the last remaining items; dogs drown in swimming pools; security or police presence is non-existent. Some may find the class warfare a bit too literal and the descent into mass mayhem elliptical. Others will just enjoy indulging in the strange plot turns and Wheatley’s off-kilter directorial choices, and forget less about the thematic foundations. These viewers should find much value in the production design, layered with character-related details. Wheatley situates the characters in spaces that express a trapped paranoia: Helen has her cluttered bedroom; Laing peers emptily into a hall of mirrors in one of the high-rise elevators; Toby views the violence and vulgarity through a champagne-hued kaleidoscope.

Amy Jump, the director’s wife, wrote the screenplay and had the challenging role of sculpting a narrative from Ballard’s text, which is more memorable for its gloomy language and social criticism than its plot dynamics. At occasions, she fails to let High-Rise stand as its own thing. The lack of dialogue in the source material ensures that some of the verbal character introductions are unwieldy and unnatural. Still, she does start off the film by adapting the novel’s bleakly funny opening sentence – “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…” – so Ballard purists may forgive.

Regardless, several of Jump’s changes work. In relation to the novel, Jump’s screenplay gives more room, if not much more, to the depleted women of the high-rise. Meanwhile, the inciting incident from the novel – where a man commits suicide, tumbling from the top of the high-rise – moves to the middle here, ensuring we get a greater build-up of the socioeconomic tensions in the microcosmic space. (The scene, cutting between a drug-fueled dance party and the figure’s weightless tumble – the latter resembles the Mad Men opening credits sequence – sets the right tone for the unruliness and lack of tonal synergy in the film’s latter half.)

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Wheatley vividly renders this descent into chaos, presenting images that are both unsettling and intoxicating at once. He ultimately settles more with the former adjective, letting the characters’ ennui seep into the film’s colour scheme in the second hour, diluting the splashier tints from the first half. Meanwhile, Clint Mansell’s versatile score, heavy on minor keys, is just as adept at capturing the simmering moods and anxieties that pervade the space. (Some segments of the soundtrack are just tinny echoes, which evoke the rattles from a boiler room down the hall.)

The cast is uniformly good, with many portraying a similar yet distinct shade of urban dysfunction. The same enigmatic qualities that Hiddleston brought to the recent mini-series The Night Manager are here, although the British actor wears a less fashionable white dress shirt and black tie. As Wilder, the determined filmmaker who slowly loses his sanity, Evans gets the film’s most invigorated part. Aided by the strong, internalized performances, Wheatley ensures we watch in horrific amusement as the psychological pressures of the building compress to a breaking point.

As the high-rise dissolves into disarray, the director’s instincts sharpen. Wheatley traps the characters in rooms and costumes that acutely depict their damaged psyche. This spatial coherence ensures he can jump from upper floors to lower floors without letting the drama – or pitch-black comedy – become overly dizzying. That may be the director’s greatest talent here: he keeps playing with High-Rise‘s different tones, spaces and character moods, without letting the film’s structure topple into muddled mayhem. He is, in that way, a much more adept architect than Anthony Royal.